Can prison bureaucrats arbitrarily ban peaceful religious practices?
Whether they should, they certainly have done so. As The Becket Fund points out, many prisons have barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. Prisons have frequently even banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls, and yarmulkes.
In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
RLUIPA embodies a very simple principle: Prison officials should not impose egregious and unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty. Of course, prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity due to the arbitrary whims of prison officials. Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God.
In the case of Holt v. Hobbs, Abdul Muhammad, an Arkansas inmate, used RLUIPA as the basis for a claim of religious liberty. Muhammad was denied the ability to grow the 1/2 inch beard his Muslim faith commands—even though Arkansas already allows inmates to grow beards for medical reasons, and his beard would be permissible in 44 state and federal prison systems across the country.
In 2011, Muhammad filed a lawsuit but lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court. Justice Alito read the petition and sent it to the entire Court for decision, and the Court granted the petition.
Earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Muhammad. The Court ruled that the grooming policy violates RLUIPA insofar as it prevents petitioner from growing a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.
As Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and co-counsel in this case, says:
This is a huge win for religious freedom and for all Americans. More than 43 prison systems across the country allow prisoners to grow a half-inch beard, and at least 41 prison systems would allow an even longer beard. What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best.
This is a victory not just for one prisoner in Arkansas, but for every American who believes and wants the freedom to act on those beliefs.